David Huddle Interviews Patricia Colleen Murphy About False Affection and Her New Book, Bully Love
David Huddle: Bully Love is an intriguing title, one that lingers in your reader’s mind through the whole book. And since so many of the poems address various aspects of love, your reader learns more and more about the book’s vision of love. With “Day Trip, Cave Creek Guided Tours,” on page 55, the poem ends with the title phrase, which suggests a very specific example of love that you must have had in mind from the beginning. What can you tell us about the concept of “bully love” and how you’ve explored it in these poems?
Patricia Colleen Murphy: First, David, thank you so much for your time and care with the collection. I truly appreciate your questions. You are correct that the concept of bully love existed in my mind long before these poems did. I think of a phrase my mother said to me often, “You were such a joy to raise until you hit puberty.”
I have to laugh even when I type that, because my mother was a brilliant woman. But it takes a supreme level of banality (or cruelty?) to choose that as your on-point message with your daughter. Yeah, she was a terribly bully. I have a line in another poem, “she always told me she loved me after she made it clear that she hated me.”
That image you mention (our horses quietly suffering our pats of bully love) was transformative for me when I wrote it. It came to me quite naturally as the end of the poem, but was useful on describing not just how we treat animals. I am a drastic nurturer. When I was composing that poem about horseback riding, the image of the hand on the nose immediately resonated with how my mother made me feel. How I kept coming back to her with the hope that I would get compassion, understanding, and care. But instead I suffered various forms of false affection.
The best example I can give you of that dichotomy is that when I was 15, my mother got very mad at me and so she tried to kill herself and I saved her life. But more generally, she would criticize me by telling me I was stupid, that I had a limited vocabulary, that my legs weren’t that muscular, that a photo of me was not flattering. I took a lot of it but if I did push back, she would then effuse that she loved me very much and that she deserved my love back.
I remember, too, that she would take phone calls from my friends and refuse to let me talk. I would sit begging for the phone as she chatted up whomever called, telling them how wonderful they were, how much she admired them. Then later she would say to me, “I can’t believe you have friends like that. That person has no future.”
I imagine love can live pretty close to hate. Or at least anger. So the emotional intensity between bullying and love are similar. In my upbringing bullying occurred in a long list of ways: anger, name-calling, passive aggression, neglect, and abuse. And those, at times, co-existed with loyalty, tenderness, attachment.
David: How would you say that this pattern played out again and again between the two of you affected your behavior as an adult? I can imagine it going either way—making you cautious and easily hurt, or making you tough and frank with people you care about.
Patricia: I think it did go both ways! I am entirely too sensitive and cautious, and I am also sharp and spicy and honest. I do feel I have some advantages due to the self-protection I had to practice. I wish sometimes that I could be more open and less timid in some situations.
David: And don’t I remember that you haven’t had children of your own? Would you say your mother’s treatment of you as a child had a lot to do with that crucial aspect of your life?
Patricia: As far as choosing to be childfree, I would say that choice came because nothing about having babies ever interested me. I watched many of my best friends have babies and raise children and none of it appealed to me.
I do remember one conversation with my very best friend. We were having a conversation about our divergent choices, and I asked her what appealed to her about having children. She answered that she wanted to have a relationship with someone else that was like the one she has with her mother. We both chuckled about anyone wanting to have a relationship like the one I had with my mom. I do think the tension and pain from that relationship makes my perception of parenting more negative than positive.
David: What kind of mother might you have been if you had had children?
Patricia: I don’t believe one has to bear children to be a nurturer, and I am a royal nurturer. I have students and family members and friends whom I have mentored and supported. In particular, I have about 40–50 students I keep in very close contact with who know they can call on me at any time for anything. So I feel I have been wonderfully adept at nurturing others. It has been my life’s calling as a teacher and mentor.
David: Much of your subject matter—a difficult childhood, a drastic relocation from Ohio to Arizona, and a challenging search for enduring love and a meaningful life—could have led you to write a memoir that would find many more readers than a poetry collection. And that memoir will probably be available to you for many years to come. So, there are two questions here—one is whether you think you will eventually write a memoir, and the other is what advantages are there in writing poetry rather than prose about the shape your life has taken.
Patricia: I have been working on that memoir since 2008. Prose writing is so hard! I have been practicing it for a while and I’m still not very good at it. I have worked with a lot of people who excel at it to try to get the memoir into shape. The first person who looked at the memoir was Nick Flynn, and he has had a huge influence on my composing process. He taught me to use the poetry to infuse my prose with more musicality and surprise. I have been able to write poems about my past by using image and avoiding reflection, I would guess. Writing the memoir has caused me to dig very deep into emotions I was not all that thrilled about reliving.
David: One can see Nick Flynn writing poems as self-healing. Or a way of making it possible for him to live with himself and forgive family members who harmed him. I see that in other poets like Marie Howe and Dorianne Laux. Does that apply to you, too? Isn’t it sometimes the case that one writes a poem to fix what is wrong with one’s self?
Patricia: Oh, yes, I see that. And it was one reason I wanted to work with Nick. He and I had a couple nearly identical scenes. I wanted to learn how he crafted those. I very often write poems to reconcile emotions I can’t manage otherwise; something lingering in my brain that feels unsettled.
I have a goal this summer. I have a third manuscript of poetry nearly complete, and this memoir that is about 85% finished. I plan to move back and forth between the two so that they are both stronger.
David: So many of your poems offer detailed descriptions that are a pleasure to read because they let us see landscape, weather, and even the interior of a barber shop with unusual clarity. I’d say your poems are almost always “solidly grounded,” except that I also think your creating those descriptions comes out of a passion for the work of human beings, the world, and especially for nature. So my questions are A) where did your inclination to make vivid description come from and B) how do your descriptions help you with the overall task of creating poems?
Patricia: Thank you so much for your kind words. I do love to describe a thing. There is something so magical for me about capturing a scene like a snapshot. I’m a failed visual artist—I would love to be able to draw or paint. I dabble in photography. But capturing image in poetry is like an itch I need to scratch.
I come from a storytelling background. My father clung to his Irish heritage (thus my name) and relished the chance to tell a story. And he always started with vivid description before he dove into a punch line. So it’s an inheritance I’m thankful for. I love taking a mental picture and bringing it to life in a poem.
David: Who are the poets who have meant the most to you in becoming a poet? What did they give you that you didn’t have before you read their work? When did you realize that you were a poet?
Patricia: I realized I was a poet in second grade. I really had a love of language for a long time, and I was active in literary communities early on. In high school I was the editor of the county library literary magazine. I went to an arts high school and majored in creative writing. When I was a senior in high school I won a writing award and the prize was dinner with Nikki Giovanni. What a wonderful experience. And she was so kind and generous. So she was an early influence. My reading in high school included Gertrude Stein and e.e. cummings and Langston Hughes.
I lived in Europe for a year during college and I remember writing letters to my friends back home. I always picked a poem to copy onto the back of the envelope. It was such a special and intimate practice—almost like memorization—to hand write the words of a poet I admired. And I loved curating the choice for each individual friend or family member. It made me think about how I experienced the poem versus how they would. I remember picking lots of small, tight poems that were full of musicality and image and surprise. That practice really helped me understand personal aesthetic.
David: This practice of yours reinforces a notion I have, which is that most poets have to teach themselves the most important things they need to know in order to write the poems they have in them to write. Teachers can certainly be a help, but mostly (in my opinion) in being deftly encouraging.
Patricia: Yes, I agree here. I recently worked with a young poet who wasn’t writing poems as much as she was rearranging words down a page, and I pushed her over and over to think about how her own work fit in with others writing today. I gave her lengthy exercises to find poems she loved and evaluate why she loved them. To break them down into parts and analyze what was attractive.
As an undergrad I fell in love with James Wright. Can you see my “big fat James Wright endings” in many poems? I used to get slammed for that in workshop. But I do love a little flourish at the end of a poem. And of course there was Elizabeth Bishop. And Russell Edson.
David: Actually I loved your endings that have some extra going for them, and they didn’t make me think of Wright. Or Bishop or Edson. So it sounds to me like your workshop comrades were just being competitive and jealous. And while we’re on this topic—what are your opinions about workshops nowadays? One of mine is that I think workshop criticism has to be kept to a minimum. Too many of my students seem to enjoy extensively criticizing their classmates’ work way more than they do praising or offering useful suggestions.
Patricia: Yes, I certainly see that trend in some students; the desire to criticize. I just watched the movie The Kindergarten Teacher with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and there are some pretty funny scenes of poetry workshops where the students respond by saying things like “this poem is so derivative,” even when it is clear the student doesn’t even know what derivative means. Those scenes were cleverly written.
I can give you a few examples of recent workshop experiences. I ask students to simply answer the questions “what works” and “what needs work.” Or another way to say it is one compliment and one suggestion. I had this student who, literally no matter what I said to him, he found a misspelling or a typo. He would not look at any other thing. It was like he wanted an award for being a proofreader. I have had other students who offer so many hedges that you can’t really get to the meat of the suggestion. I feel like we have a generation that might have gotten their idea of critical thinking from writing Yelp reviews. I find sometimes that the answers lack substance.
David: Because you write about Ohio and Arizona with notable intensity, you offer your readers a vision of American life that might not be otherwise available to them. I’m speaking for myself in this regard, because the two worlds I know best are Virginia and Vermont, neither of which has a lot in common with Ohio and Arizona. So in a way you have valuable news to offer even your American readers about the variety and the emotional inspiration of the American continent. Are you aware of being above-average in your Americanness because you write so well about the look and feel of the places you know? In poems like “Fossil Springs Cutaway,” “What Good Does a Drop Do,” “Losing Track of Daylight,” and “Sycamore Close-Up” do you have a literary mission in writing about those specific places?
Patricia: You put a smile on my face! I love this notion of place expertise. I also teach travel writing and man do I push my students to do just what you are talking about: become above-average in their observations of place. Many of them resist. They want to simply list their movements or describe their margaritas. Your question gives me some insight into that!
I do have a literary mission. I want to deliver the humanity of place to the reader in a way that changes them. Two of the poems you mention here are part of a five-part series that I wrote in collaboration with a visual artist, an encaustic painter. She and I did a hike through Fossil Springs in Arizona and then in the next month she treated the place through painting and I treated it through poems. We displayed these paintings and poems at an art museum in Phoenix. So those poems, specifically, had the goal of capturing place and transforming it for an end reader.
It was a very meta exercise—we wanted to study the ways visual arts and language arts intersect, and also how human experience and emotion gets communicated. The poems in that series were so carefully crafted.
Other poems that explore landscapes, I must tell you, come from a compulsion to chronicle and communicate my euphoric feelings in place. It’s almost a way to control my out-of-control emotions. I make an exhausting travel partner because I get giddy over new experience: both natural and urban. These poems are a way for me to manage and channel that energy.
David: In your poems about relationships, (e.g., “Three Pound Cutthroat,” “Mid-Street,” and “My 3 a.m. Problem”) you often present a man and a woman not being on the same page in what they want from each other. You present that discord so objectively that your reader can see it as a negative force at work on the couple and/or as a realistic reckoning with the given imperfection that love brings with it. The speaker of “Time to Shear the Earth’s Hair” articulates that ambivalence with sharply truthful elegance: “And so I will live the rest of my life / just short of rapture.” How would you prefer that your readers understand your vision of romantic love?
Patricia: Thank you for this beautiful question and for the observations behind it. A friend of mine recently asked John, “How do you feel about being so prominent in this book?” He is very generous in allowing me to capture him page after page.
I think one thing that has kept us so strong for 25 years is allowing each other to have emotions. I want the reader to feel that romantic love involves total trust in your other, total ability to be your own self.
For me loyalty and devotion and care and kindness and generosity are pretty damn sexy. But I recognize that romantic love also includes disappointment, anger, impatience, and unfulfilled expectations.
I want the reader to know that even the best relationships take work.
David: This last sentence seems to me directly to name that aspect to a relationship, but it’s usually implicit in your poems, which is to say that you leave it up to your reader to figure that out. But I wonder if there’s also a poem to write about a relationship that has plenty of problems but that nevertheless is functional and sturdy—built to last for the long haul.
Patricia: Yes. I think my dad poems do that. Our relationship was terribly flawed but we were so loyal to each other.
David: What do you hope your students take away from your creative writing classes?
Patricia: I want my students to learn respect. Respect for contemporary writers is top on the list—I push all my students to support people who are writing today, who are working very hard to express themselves. Sometimes young writers want everything to happen for them at once. I want them to recognize writing as a practice, one that their contemporaries are toiling at every day.
David: I love this answer. Have you encountered lack of respect from talented students? (Not sure I have. Generally my good students have been grateful readers of the good writers that have gone before them.)
Patricia: Hm. Let met think about my 26 years of teaching—most have been respectful when asked to read new authors. But I do this activity where I ask students to name three living American poets and literally almost every time someone says Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This was often in 200 or 300 level poetry workshops, of course.
But you’re right, that when I introduce contemporary poets to talented students, they are totally grateful readers.
Though I do find some who are less so. I had a student two semesters ago who said she was going to transform the face of American poetry using Instagram and that she wanted to make her first million dollars from poetry by the time she was 25. My reading list didn’t appeal to her. So there’s that element and I feel like it is becoming more prominent.
I also want my students to respect their subjects and treat their subjects with care and intelligence. I want them to make conscious choices not only in topic, but in composition and artistry.
Many of my assignments are designed to stretch them to see the world from different perspectives. I put up with a lot of whining from my students because I often ask them to radically alter their composition process. To a recent group of protesting students, I said, “I know. I am a terrible human being. But please set a timer and humor me for thirty minutes.”
And then they produce work they didn’t know they had in them.
David: And isn’t this one of highest pleasures of teaching? It’s also one the highest pleasures of writing—creating something you didn’t know you had in you.
Patricia: Yes, so true! I’m willing to be the bad guy if it gets us there.